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Last Updated: Saturday, 10 November 2007, 09:17 GMT
Truth amid Lions for Lambs hype
New movie Lions for Lambs, starring Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep and Robert Redford, explores the tense relationship between journalists and politicians over the so-called "war on terror". Political correspondent Guto Harri compares it to his own dealings with ministers.

Lions for Lambs
Cruise plays a politician who confides in Streep's TV journalist

I've never met a British politician who looks like Tom Cruise in Lions for Lambs.

None of my tutors at college were as engaging as Robert Redford. And it is humbling as a TV journalist to imagine Meryl Streep, winner of two Oscars, six Golden Globes and a Bafta, pretending to do my job.

Even more unlikely, in a Westminster context, is the idea of being summoned by a senior politician to spend an hour, without aides or civil servants, learning exclusively and in detail what the next stage in the "war on terror" will involve.

I do remember chasing a member of Tony Blair's cabinet down one of the committee corridors of the House of Commons as the government was engaged in its last attempt to gain a second UN resolution authorising military action against Baghdad.

The minister had just spent hours at a select committee and needed the toilet. He summoned me to join him, and it was in the uncomfortably intimate surroundings of the urinals that he told me what his gut instinct was on the prospects of a deal.

That - for me - was a rare moment. Most commentators here build their daily jigsaw puzzles from precious pieces of information snatched from short telephone conversations and rushed, if not random, rendezvous in some quiet corner of the Palace of Westminster.

When a minister agrees to lunch, he or she almost invariably brings a special adviser and encourages a journalist to invite a colleague too.

'Returning favour'

It is therefore hard to believe that Streep's character, Janine Roth, gets summoned to the Senate to be handed a story on a plate about a special forces mission which has just got under way in the mountains of Afghanistan.

We are also expected to believe that she has been handed this gift because she once suggested the politician in question was the "future of his party". Jasper Irving, played by Cruise, tells her: "This is me returning the favour."

Lions for Lambs also boils complex issues down to simple statements and questions.

"Do you want to win the war on terror? Yes or no?" asks Cruise. "This is the quintessential question of our time - yes or no."

How and why we got there is not the issue, he says. "We have to move forward... do whatever it takes."

It reminded me of a long summer when Tony Blair dismissed almost every question about a potential war in Iraq by stating that it was "neither imminent nor inevitable".

Lions for Lambs stars Robert Redford and Meryl Streep
Director Robert Redford also stars alongside Streep

It was soon so "imminent and inevitable" that to question it seemed unfair on the British soldiers preparing for it in the Kuwaiti dessert.

Awkward questions about the lack of weapons of mass destruction were similarly avoided until sufficient time had passed to dismiss them as missing the point.

"I can apologise," Blair told the Labour conference in 2004, "for the information that turned out to be wrong, but I can't, sincerely at least, apologise for removing Saddam."

It's easy to knock Lions for Lambs, but the film offers disturbing reminders of the mistakes made in the run-up to Iraq and Afghanistan, which the ruling politicians on both sides of the Atlantic have been extremely reluctant to dwell upon.

The film also touches on some very sensitive subjects, and prompted a lively public discussion after its press preview in London's West End.

In the movie, parts of the media are reminded of its gung-ho enthusiasm in the run-up to war.

The senator challenges Streep: "You already sold the war. Now I'm asking you to help me sell the solution."

She recognises that her network, and others, overlooked the obvious perils. "It was all right there if we had bothered to connect the dots," she reflects.

Mounting anxiety

The Californian political science professor played by Redford challenges his star pupil to recognise his complicity, telling him bluntly that he cannot simply blame the administration.

"They bank on your apathy," he says. "They plan strategies around it. The problem is not with the people who started this, the problem is with us who do nothing to stop it."

Streep and Redford, who also directed the movie, are widely regarded as icons of the US liberal establishment in a country where "liberal" for many is a dirty word.

But for Cruise this is a very different genre - more Mission Questionable than Mission Impossible. And that suggests a mounting anxiety among Americans about their war on terror.

Those who were in favour are more open to criticism of the war because of the mounting price paid by young Americans. The two victims in the film's botched military mission were told they "could choose any graduate school in any field".

The impact of the war on the countries attacked is clearly secondary here. There isn't one Afghan character, only shadows in the snow preparing to do unspeakably barbaric things to the heroic US soldiers in their sights.

The film, in this respect, might have less resonance with British opponents of the war; but in the US it will add to the growing voice of those who wonder what the country hopes to achieve from these engagements.

Lions for Lambs is on general release in the UK.

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